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Iowa caucus mishap fueled by DNC interference, state missteps: autopsy report

Chaos and confusion over the Iowa Democratic caucuses earlier this year were mainly driven by interference from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and statewide blunders, according to a new autopsy report commissioned by the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP). 

A copy of the report, which was released at a meeting Saturday morning of the Iowa Democratic Party State Central Committee and obtained by The Hill, identified a number of missteps by both the DNC and the IDP, with many focused around the reporting app used to tally the caucus results.

The postmortem comes 10 months after the chaotic caucuses, in which former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds Biden signs order to require masks on planes and public transportation Senators vet Buttigieg to run Transportation Department MORE won the most delegates but Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBoycott sham impeachment Sunday shows - Biden agenda, Trump impeachment trial dominate Sanders: Senate may use budget reconciliation to pass Biden agenda MORE (I-Vt.) won the most votes. The reporting app did not work in many precincts, and several areas had reporting issues, leaving the IDP unable to call a winner on caucus night.

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The ensuing uproar — which added to an already boiling partywide debate over the caucuses’ influence as the year’s first nominating contest — ultimately forced then-IDP Chairman Troy Price to resign from his post. 

The autopsy lays most of the blame at the DNC’s feet, suggesting the national party meddled in the development and release of the reporting app, built by tech startup Shadow. The report specifically said the DNC delayed the IDP’s request to use Shadow as a vendor, which pushed back cooperation between party officials and the tech firm. There were also unrelated delays in the app development process. 

The IDP had intended for the app to be available for testing by December 2019, but it did not end up being rolled out until Jan. 18, 2020, two weeks before the caucuses, crunching the amount of training time available for poll workers and other officials. 

“The IDP intended to release the app to end users (i.e., the temporary caucus chairs) for installation and testing in December 2019. But the app ultimately was not ready and would not be rolled out until mid-January 2020. One of the reasons for the delays was that Shadow had difficulty getting the attention it needed from IDP personnel to direct the development,” the report said. 

“Because the app development did not start in earnest until late 2019, development significantly overlapped with other time- and labor-intensive tasks in which IDP personnel were involved leading up to the caucuses. The IDP was stretched thin during these last few months; the IDP’s only two in-house technology personnel were busy with multiple projects related to the upcoming caucuses,” it added.

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Issues continued with the app following its release, which was met with “very mixed reactions from users” over the “the app installation process and the app’s functionality.” The DNC also in January said it would require Shadow to build a conversion tool just weeks before the caucuses to grant it access to real-time results to prevent miscalculations.

The DNC’s data system employed a different database format than that of Shadow’s reporting app, which the autopsy said caused a coding error and other issues. 

“This tool was not necessary for the reporting app to function or for the reporting app to work with any of the IDP’s systems. The tool was needed exclusively for the DNC’s use to quality-check the incoming results in real time. The IDP was planning to have staff check the results prior to releasing them. The DNC’s quality-check was an extra step that was not part of the IDP’s plan for caucus night,” the autopsy said. 

The DNC on Saturday defended the need for a quality control system, saying its request was "validated by numerous press reports which found 'errors and inconsistencies' in the initial caucus results. The underlying technical problems were caused by errors from the IDP's vendor."

The DNC declined to be interviewed for the autopsy, the report said, though the national party organization told The Hill that it offered to provide written answers to questions and that the body overseeing the autopsy declined that request.

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"This cycle, the reforms Democrats made to our presidential nominating process helped increase voter participation, provide transparency, and ensured that our nominee entered the general election with the full unity and support of the party, which ultimately led us to victory. Every four years, the DNC looks back at what worked and what didn’t work and the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee will continue to evaluate all areas of our nominating process and make recommendations for any changes," said DNC spokesman David Bergstein.

Nick Klinefeldt, a lawyer who helped craft the autopsy, later told reporters that "sufficient perspective" had gone into the report and that other political operatives and presidential campaigns, including those of Sanders and Buttigieg, had been consulted.

The autopsy also recognized that the IDP had insufficient volunteers and phone lines to handle the number of incoming calls on caucus night and that the party had failed to sufficiently communicate with the press and the public about the app. Communications from the IDP to the press had also set expectations that the party would declare a victor on caucus night, improperly raising expectations of a swift result.

“The findings of this independent, detailed review of what happened during the 2020 caucuses should speak for itself. In the interest of clarity and public reassurance, the IDP commissioned this self-critical report to help guide conversations as we move forward,” said IDP Chairman Mark Smith. “It is deeply unfortunate that technical setbacks overshadowed the selfless work of thousands of volunteers who were committed to making the 2020 caucuses a success.”

“The most important thing for us to do now is to heed these lessons, listen to each other’s ideas, and work together to move forward,” he added.

Politico first reported on the caucus autopsy report.

While Iowa has always held outsize sway as the state with the first nominating contest of the primary cycle, the controversy over last year’s caucuses and the Hawkeye State’s overwhelmingly white electorate have put its caucus date in jeopardy.

Lawmakers and progressives, particularly activists, have argued that more diverse states should hold the first nominating contest, which is crucial in setting expectations and media narratives for the candidates.

“Our mission, our purpose for being engaged was not to develop a plan to save the Iowa caucuses,” said Bonnie Campbell, a former Iowa attorney general who was also involved in the autopsy. “I really don’t know the future of the Iowa caucuses.”

Updated at 3:49 p.m.